Category Archives: Jacob Frumkin

Technical revolution to cultural evolution.

As we prepare to set foot on the campus of Apple, I think that it is only fitting to take some time to reflect on this technological giant that has transformed so many of our lives. The concept of a strong innovation ecosystem that fosters and encourages experimentation and now defines much of what draws the world’s best and brightest Silicon Valley can be traced back to Apple. Apple, along with their competitors at Microsoft, have been instrumental in turning a technical revolution into a cultural evolution.

In the fourth quarter of 2011 alone, Apple sold an astounding 15 million iPads, 37 million iPhones, 5 million Macs, and 15 million iPods. This led to a quarterly revenue of $46 billion and an astounding $17.5 billion in cash flow for the world’s most innovative company.

The power and influence of Apple is truly incredible. For better or for worse, iTunes played a large role in changing the music industry and putting music stores out of business. iPods demolished their competition in the MP3 race (has anyone seen a Zune recently?), iPhones changed the way hundreds of millions of people interact, and the iPad is quickly doing to bookstores and newspapers what the iPod did to the music industry.

Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile (Karl Benz deserves the credit for this), but his innovative ways made cars better and cheaper. Apple didn’t invent the tablet, smartphone, MP3 player, and certainly not the computer. But the visions and execution of Steve Jobs and his colleagues helped create a brand that might be more notable and influential than any other in history.

We spend a great deal of time talking about how we should learn from other’s mistakes and try to recreate their successes . As we continue to chase the dream of entrepreneurial prosperity, we should take some lessons from a man and company that may have catalyzed change better than any other. When I head to Cupertino later today, I will be walking through the same buildings where persistent innovation created a cultural revolution.

Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.

It seems so simple: persist and persevere. Perhaps nobody said it better than Jim Valvano in his 1993 ESPY speech when, as he stood on stage teetering on the brink of death, he said “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” This was the motto for his newly minted foundation, the Jimmy V foundation for cancer research, which has since raised $115 million and counting for cancer research. He knew it wouldn’t save his life, but he hoped that one day the research his foundation enabled might save one of his kids or grandkids lives. If you haven’t ever seen this speech, you should really check it out right here.

Jimmy V refused to give up. Whatever challenges we may face in the start-up world are more than likely trivial in comparison to the fight Jim Valvano and so many others have refused to give in to. Many say that we learn about who people truly are not in times of prosperity and success, but in times of adversity. In the start-up world, much like life in general, I truly believe that one must be a passionate fighter.

Perhaps just as important as persistence is the ability to problem solve and wisdom to know when to utilize these important skills. If you continue to run into an impenetrable wall that’s not persistence and dedication, it’s ineffective and dumb. Sometimes it’s necessary to switch to plan b or plan c or plan z.

Start-ups can sometimes be rough, and some things may be out of your control. But the thing that draws so many people to these noble endeavors is that so many things are within their control. However, they must know that they’re going to have to be willing to persist and persevere all the way to the end. In the words of Jimmy V, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”

The web hosting conundrum

Pictures this: You’re sitting in class one day and you’ve just had the next great idea. It’s so obvious you think, leading you to perform a quick Google search to see if someone else has beat you to it. After getting through page two of related Google results, you are satisfied that your bright idea isn’t out there. Suddenly oblivious to anything but your newfound path to the promise land, you spend the rest of class thinking about how this is going to make you millions of dollars and you completely miss the professor’s announcement that there will be a quiz next class.

Class finally ends and, as your classmates congregate in groups to find out who will let them copy the notes from the three classes they slept through last week, you hastily head out the door. You make the quick decision to skip your next class because, well, why bother listening to another boring lecture about Chaucer or quantum mechanics when you’re suddenly just a few days away from your first funding round?

As you’re hurrying back to your dorm, you call your girlfriend and tell her you can’t make dinner tonight. You then text your former roommate to ask him for the name of that computer science genius he’s always talking about. Ten minutes later you’ve got your co-founder and a bag of Taco Bell for your first full night of development. Neglecting all possible responsibilities and obligations, you and your new best friend spend the next two weeks translating your idea into code.

Fast forward two weeks: you are incredibly sick of Taco Bell and Red Bull, your grades are down ten points across the board, your girlfriend now has the prefix “ex” in front of her former title, and your parents are starting to wonder if you’re still alive. On the bright side, you and you and your co-founder have just wrote the final line of code on what is sure to be the greatest product ever released. There’s only one problem: your amazing product is localhosted, and the only two people who can use it are the two developers. You know you need web hosting to get it on the web, but there are hundreds (literally) of options, and you have no idea where to turn.

Is this starting to sound a little bit familiar? Let’s take some time to learn a little bit about the different deployment options available to you.

When it comes to deploying a product that utilizes databases and needs to be scalable (remember that you’re anticipating millions of users, and quickly), the top options are almost always considered to be Heroku and Amazon Web Services (AWS). However, AWS and Heroku offer somewhat different services to their customers.

Heroku offers Platform as a Service (PaaS), while AWS makes use of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). The difference is that while AWS give you the components you need to build things on top of it, Heroku provides an environment that allows users to push code and basic configuration and get their application up and running quickly. The trade-off is that with Heroku you sacrifice power and flexibility in exchange for efficiency and time.

Why spend the day configuring the OS and installing software for AWS when you could simply type “git push” on Heroku, email the now live link to your mom, and then spend the afternoon watching your analytics charts? Well, if you need to store temporary files, run custom binaries, or compile from a source, Heroku won’t make this easy. If you don’t know what any of this is, you probably don’t need to do it. An additional consideration is whether you foresee the need for vertical scaling. Vertical scaling is essentially replacing all of your hardware with better harder, while horizontal scaling involves adding hardware to work in accordance with your existing setup. If you think that vertical scaling will be in your near future, you should go with AWS. However, as is the case for most startups, the horizontal scaling that Heroku makes available through the use of increased web and worker dynos as your demands increase (all you have to do is drag a slider) should be more than enough for your needs.

Perhaps the most important thing for your new company is money, since you probably don’t have very much of it (not yet, at least). Heroku charges $0.05 per dyno hour (about $36/month), while AWS receives $0.09 per hour for an AWS small instance (about $65/month). Each heroku dyno runs a single user-specified command and is allocated 512 MB of memory. This is roughly comparable to the capabilities of an AWS small instance. Perhaps the best thing about Heroku is that they provide each account holder with 720 free dyno hours and 5 free megabytes of shared database space each month, meaning that hosting your new product with relatively little traffic on Heroku probably won’t cost you a dime at first.

If you’re trying to get your product on the web as easily, quickly, and cost-effectively as possible, it probably makes sense to go with Heroku. If your idea is as good as you think it is and you’re in need of vertical scaling down the road, you can always make the switch to AWS. And, by that time, you shouldn’t have trouble paying your hosting bills.

The first step is starting

The most popular thing in the Dogpatch basement these days seems to be creating fake websites. Loosely derived from the concept of A/B testing, realistic looking landing pages with dead buttons seem to be the new goal. People seem to wonder: why spend time developing a functioning website that can attract real users when you can download a free trial of Photoshop, spend a few hours mocking up a landing page, and test for click rates?

This whole craze began after a recent talk from Jason Freedman. He told the group about how, in a period of a few days, he scrapped eight iterations of what ultimately turned out to be 42Floors before finally settling on their current iteration. In a matter of a few hours he would mock up a landing page (complete with dead buttons), attract some potential users, and calculate the bounce rate (the percentage of site users who leave the site before clicking to advance past the landing page). In a period of three hours, he would go from thinking he had the next great idea to determining that he had nothing.

By definition, A/B testing is a way to test possible changes in web page design against the current design and determine which one produces the most positive results. A/B testing is designed to take the guesswork out of website improvement and optimization, not to determine if a new great idea is a boom or bust before a real, functioning site is ever built.

Starting a startup is all about, well, starting. There are millions of people out there who think that they have a million dollar idea. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but people who can come together and execute great ideas are the people who can really make change happen. Entrepreneurs can’t be afraid to take risks, and they can’t be afraid of failure. Most importantly, they have to give themselves a chance to succeed. All a fake website gives a person is a way to avoid the possibility of having to admit failure; it’s hard to fail when you never try.

People may learn about a target market when they are busy building fake websites and charting bounce rates. And this target market may change when they don’t see what they want, meaning they haven’t really learned anything useful. If you really want to disrupt the market and catalyze change, you must believe in your idea and dedicate yourself to implementing your innovative vision. If you make the brave decision to “take the plunge” and begin to execute your vision, you may fail. Statistically speaking, you probably will fail. But in the process, you will afford yourself the opportunity to learn a great deal about developing a product. This is the kind of invaluable, hands-on knowledge that you can only learn by doing, and these are the kinds of lessons that will allow you to execute even better if you decide it’s time to pivot.

A fake website may be a way to test how a small group of people respond to a general idea, but it is highly unlikely that a person can accurately portray their vision on a mocked up landing page with fake buttons. Maybe people won’t like the idea at first (and only) glance because they think it will be difficult to use, but you have an innovative way to make it incredibly user-friendly that’s not being portrayed well. Or maybe the product won’t be of interest because a user has never heard of it, and because none of their friends are using it. On the flip side, maybe someone is intrigued because they believe this product will solve one of their biggest needs, but it turns out solving this specific need is not what you intended and perhaps not even feasible. These and many more questions can’t be answered until you make the effort to execute your vision.

The decision of a person to click or not click a dead button on a fake site after a gut reaction should not be the determining factor in beginning the process of development. An entrepreneur should learn about their target market, and then begin to start the startup. There are plenty of great ideas with no one with the abilities to execute them and bring a product to market. If you think you’ve got the next great idea, believe in your vision, build a team, and start executing. You may fail, but make a point of absorbing all of the lessons that are best learned by doing. But you may also succeed. I don’t know what will happen if you take the plunge and work to execute your vision, but I do know that you won’t succeed if you never start.

Silicon Valley, Round 1.

Upon meeting my co-founder and soon-to-be fellow Dogpatcher at the airport on Saturday, I saw that he had brought an umbrella with him all the way from North Carolina. I wondered why he would do this. Growing up in the Bay Area, I knew that it never rained out here during this time of the year.

Fast forward to Monday morning. I opened the door of our rented room in San Mateo and stepped outside to begin the journey to Dogpatch. Something didn’t feel right. All of a sudden I was soaking wet. It was raining. In fact, it was pouring. Where in the world did this come from I wondered?

My first day as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur got off to a wet start, but it was all uphill from there. After a quick introduction to Dogpatch and Palo Alto by the DSVIP team, we settled in and got down to business.

We are working on a nutritional start-up called myTwoBites. We provide expectant mothers with the information necessary to eat well and keep them and their babies healthy and strong. Research has shown that children born to well-fed mothers are more likely to lead happy and healthy lives than those who are not. We have collaborated extensively with obstetricians, physicians, and nutritionists to build a product that we hope is incredibly easy to use and provides moms actionable feedback in a quick and efficient manner.

I am fortunate to work with two outstanding partners, Xiaoyang Zhuang and Ani Mohan. In a period of just two weeks, we put together a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) that will allow us to get a better idea of what we are doing right and, perhaps more importantly, what we need to improve upon. You can check out the MVP on www.mytwobites.com and follow our blog here.

Because we were able to head out to Silicon Valley with a MVP, we are in the luxurious position of spending some of our time improving the product and interacting with users and also having the time and opportunity to build the many important relationships that the Valley has to offer. In our first week at Dogpatch, we had 12 different meetings with various people, from venture capitalists to nutritionists, lawyers, and other Dogpatch residents (many of whom are accomplished entrepreneurs). This does not include the many informal conversations that tend to crop up throughout the day (and sometimes night). This is the beauty of Silicon Valley. This is why we’re fortunate to call Dogpatch home for the next two months.

Each summer resident at Dogpatch aims to build their respective companies as best they can. The sky is the limit, and the DukeGEN program is proving to be our wings. Whether it be the people we networked with at the DukeGEN pitch event in San Francisco after our second day of work, the weekly curriculum session featuring engaging discussion with influential Silicon Valley entrepreneurs on day three, or the lunch meetings with some of the many people involved in the program, everyone has been incredibly hospitable and instrumental in our enjoyment of and hopeful success in Silicon Valley.

I am incredibly excited about where myTwoBites is headed and what the rest of the summer has in store.

Until next time!

Jacob